The image that started it all was powerful to begin with. Hundreds of hospital beds piled on a side street inside the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) in Manila. Some of those beds were 50 years old, condemned and never to be used again by PGH.
In a year of grief, losses and suffering from COVID-19, the sight of hospital beds cast aside—as if patients on the worst day in a hospital—was the perfect metaphor for this seemingly unending COVID hell.
Visual artist and sculptor Toym Imao converted some of those hospital beds into flowerbeds in an installation called “Whispering Flower Beds,” a tribute to the fallen frontliners in the Philippines.
Some of the beds were set to be refurbished, after which they would be donated to other public hospitals. From this pile, Toym picked the 12 oldest, the most damaged—one for each month of the coronavirus lockdown.
In February, a month before the country was to mark the first year of the longest lockdown in the world, Toym heard about the hospital beds from his friend Bibeth Orteza, who shared how her husband, director Carlos Siguion-Reyna “was emotionally overwhelmed” when he saw them after he got a PCR test at PGH.
With this story in mind Toym, who coincidentally had a meeting at PGH two days later about an art project for the National Institute of Health, asked to see them.
“I was overcome with emotion too,” he tells PhilSTAR L!fe in an interview. “By the power those beds emanated, the stories they could tell. It was at that moment, in the presence of hundreds of hospital beds, amid the backdrop of the side street and greens along its periphery that an epiphany came to me: beds with flowers.”
The first person he told was Zena Bernardo, a friend and plantita. The project was then introduced to PGH Director Dr. Gap Legaspi, who right away supported the proposal. Then Toym’s core team was formed to include director Krix San Gabriel, Katsch Catoy, and Prof. Lisa Ito of the Concerned Artist of the Philippines.
“We all had our own personal reasons why we were so passionate about doing this project. Bibeth’s brother, Dr. Neil Orteza, was one of the first frontliners to fall.”
Toym says that Dr. Orteza’s three daughters—a medical resident and two medical students at PGH—helped them plant flowers on the first day.
They planted a variety of species including the native katakataka (the same plants at the feet of the UP Oblation in Diliman), flowering portulacas, cosmos and mayanas. “All popular plants by newbie plantitos and plantitas during the lockdown. We wanted to reference these plants in terms of survival, and the mental health activities that people engaged in during the ECQ and GCQ,” he says.
The group is also compiling stories into an audio collection, which visitors of the installation will hear “in the form of whispers” from the 12 hospital flowerbeds.
Landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren tells PhilSTAR L!fe that Toym’s installation is “a really poignant metaphor and it could be made permanent with vines eventually replacing the beds as a topiary.”
Paulo also says that Toym’s “Barikada” installation for the 50th anniversary of the Diliman Commune in February is a work that “triggers communal (pun intended) memory and makes a polychromic statement that tags the current administration's madness.”
“Whispering Flower Beds” will open to the public on March 30—the day PGH became the country’s Covid Center last year.
Like Toym’s other installations—including “Ikot/Toki” as his tribute to jeepney drivers plying the UP campus—“Whispering Flower Beds” is a commentary on the times we live in.
It’s a work that pays tribute to sacrifice and love for sure, but it’s also a narrative of this unceasing battering from a virus and an inept government.
The political dig may be subtle, surrounded by flowers and sunlight, but it’s there.
Molded by four mentors
When God was distributing mentors to young artists, Toym had his arms wide open, and he ended up with four—two of them National Artists of the Philippines, as was his own father, National Artist for Visual Arts Abdulmari A. Imao Sr., who was conferred the award in 2006, and passed away in 2014.
Toym says he is lucky to be mentored by people from different art disciplines: National Artist for Literature Alejando Roces, National Artist for Sculpture Napoleon Abueva, filmmaker Marilou Diaz-Abaya, and artist Luis Yee Jr. or Junyee, a pioneer in installation art in the country.
When he was studying architecture in UP Diliman, Toym moonlighted as a features writer and strip cartoonist at the Manila Times. “Tito Anding (Roces) was the editor in chief and I would tag along and help him in his research for his book Fiesta.
Abueva’s mentorship came about through Toym’s father, who was a student of Abueva’s. “It was actually through Tito Billy, through several visits to his studio with my dad, that I came to decide to be a sculptor.”
Abueva was his mentor at the College of Fine Arts when he took his master’s degree. Toym’s architecture degree was a compromise with his father who told him, “There’s no money in art.”
Isn’t there? Toym laughs and says, “I’m still in denial. My wife says my father was right.”
Abueva, who was then building his Gothic four-story chapel in his studio, made the younger Imao a promise. “I said that I would like to get married in his chapel when it was finished. And he kept that promise. My wife and I got married there in 1998, it was the first major wedding in the Chapel of the Child Jesus, and Abueva was our ninong.”
Toym was already teaching at the UP College of Fine Arts when Abueva suffered a stroke in 2008. He requested Toym to take over his classes, which he did.
Mentor No. 3 was Marilou Diaz-Abaya, under whom Toym studied film at her MDA Film Institute in Antipolo, and he apprenticed on her last film, which she did while battling cancer.
“She was responsible for developing my storytelling skills,” he says.
When Toym left for a Fulbright Scholarship for an MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2010, he was still under the apprenticeship of Diaz-Abaya.
He was 42 at the time, leaving behind a wife and three young children, his studio and staff, and elderly parents and mentors.
He and Diaz-Abaya were making plans upon his return to develop the visual arts programs of her film school. “It was my way to thank her for taking me under her wing as a scholar. If I were 10 years younger when I got the scholarship, I wouldn't have left with so much anxiety and a heavy heart. There were so many reasons not to go. It was my last chance to take the plunge, and commit to two years as a full-time student who would technically be unemployed in a foreign land on the opposite side of the globe.
“During the periods 2010 to 2012 while being a grad student at MICA, and as an artist in residence at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore from 2012 to 2014, I lost my Tito Anding (2011), my mom (2012), Direk Marilou (2012), and dad (2014). Tito Billy, always the fighter held on until 2018.”
But after his Fulbright experience, Toym came home with a “new set of spectacles to appreciate my country's art and culture from a distance. It gave a much needed opportunity for reinvention, and allowed me to focus on how I would like to be remembered as a visual storyteller—one who produces not only for private collectors but for the public.”
His fourth mentor was Luis Yee Jr. or Junyee. “After my studies in the US, I told myself that besides doing commission works for monuments and shrines, I would do an alternative imaging of history—about lesser known or unpopular periods, and painful histories of our nation through installation art. My family's friendship and experiencing the work of Tito Junyee inspired me to do the art I have been doing in the past 10 years,” he says.
Growing up an activist, a polytheist
“My dad was just chill as a father and fellow artist,” Toym describes his father Abdulmari Sr. “He brought me, as a child, everywhere his curiosity brought him.”
They went to exhibits, special shows, invention exhibitions at Philcite, window shopping in tools and material shops, and artists’ studios.
“He was gala and he would take me along being his panganay.”
Born in a family with parents having two different religions (Islam and Catholicism), did UP tempt him to become an atheist—as it does many students when their minds are freed from generational beliefs?
“Actually, UP made me more of a polytheist,” he laughs. “I was raised in Manila, studied in a Catholic, all-boys school run by the Marist Brothers.”
In UP, he was an activist and a student leader in several progressive organizations. “We were the batch in 1986 directly after the EDSA Revolution. That was the period when several coups on the Cory administration were attempted; when UP alumnus and student leader Lean Alejandro was assassinated; when there were US Bases protests and their eventual closure; and the Mendiola Massacre. These events during my college life introduced me to harsh realities of our nation's history.”
While he grew up in Marikina, Toym settled in UP Village when he got married. “My wife Lee is also from UP, and we both agreed we wanted to live near the campus where she also lived after college.”
Despite his own father’s warning about there not having money in art, are his children, now studying in UP, following in their father and grandfather’s footsteps?
Yes they are! His son Diego is in architecture, his eldest daughter Sarah is in art studies, and youngest daughter Kahlo “is the artist talaga sa family, she is a freshman in Fine Arts.”
He laughs, “Mukhang mahabahaba pang kayod for the parents.”